The Dark Side of Innovative Teams
Over the past few weeks my colleague and I have been reflecting back on some experiences in which we’ve worked building team dynamics and unlocking “team creativity.” These teams had very diverse individuals: engineers, programmers, designers, financial analysts, and even lawyers. We’ve all heard how interdisciplinary teams are key to unlocking creativity and innovation; and they are, we believe, but not by themselves. Putting all these people in the same room may very well temper innovation if important requirements have not been met.
The most recurrent issues we’ve observed working with interdisciplinary teams are: narrow-minded points of view; different “languages;” and diversity in goals, expectations, and motivations. While these observations may be inherently part of any team dynamic, we’ve noticed these become even more of a problem in teams looking to unlock their “team creativity and innovation.” We’ve come up with a list of requirements we now are starting to enforce on our clients that are looking to improve their teams. The more diverse a team is, the more these requirements are necessary:
Well-rounded individuals. Customer empathy is important, but team empathy is just as important, if not even more important. You want to have product managers with some coding experience, with marketing knowledge, and with a sense for design. He or she knows how the engineer thinks, how the marketer thinks, and how the designer thinks. Of course in the real world it is very hard to find such well-rounded employees. That is why we created “empathy warm ups.” They work in pairs for 5 minutes mentoring each other in mentor-apprentice roles, and then switch. Our goal is to create “inter-disciplinary people,” not just interdisciplinary teams.
Common language. This reminds me of the story of the six blind men and the elephant I heard once from one of my bosses. In it, the first man touched the tail of the elephant and thought it was a rope, the second man touched a leg and was convinced that it was a tree, and so on, each with a different perspective of reality. None could see the big picture and work towards the same goal. Working with individuals with no common language may just feel like an elephant, people get frustrated because the team “can’t seem to get it.” As part of our workshops we spend a good amount of time building this common language in organizations. It can, and should, be different for every company, but it needs to be defined, and that takes effort.
Commitment and availability. We’ve been learning this the hard way. It is not enough with having the right people, with the right vision, and speaking the same language if they do not even have the time to dedicate themselves to the project. This is especially a problem at large corporations where individuals are already part of a different team, where they already have other responsibilities, and allocation of time is predicated on bureaucracy. True lean and fast experimentation is a function of the time team members can dedicate to the specific project. Make sure everybody participating in an interdisciplinary team is truly committed to the team and accountable for a piece of the work.
Team creativity and innovation are crucial in every organization seeking to win in today’s ever-changing markets, but certain requirements ought to be in place if teams are to perform at their best. While these three suggestions may sound quite simple, we’ve find them to be very powerful. We would love to hear what are some additional challenges you’ve faced in innovative teams, and what has been done to overcome those issues.
image credit: grassrootsmotorsports.com
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Salvael Ortega holds a BS in Business Management, Business Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Brigham Young University (BYU). Salvael is the Associate Director of the BYU Innovation Research Lab, and also Co-President and Founder of the BYU Innovation Academy.
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